A faint shade of Yellow Peril

I haven’t quite left academia. After declining a sessional tutoring contract, and cancelling my dole on the verbal offer of a full time well paid traineeship in a different sector entirely, I was told that the new employer couldn’t give me a start date…..

I had about a month of sobbing under my doona; too despondent to even reapply for Centrelink. But Kimmy Schmidt always bounces back, and so did I. Fostered a kitten, and bought some new flanelette pyjamas as my new working from home uniform as I reached out undertake contract work with other contractors who are an asylum seeker and a new arrival and recent mother. I am now ensconsed in the world of the precariat, which is a long way from the Fordist ideal of the ‘worker’ that those bright sparks with their degrees in IR and politics working at Trades Hall still cling to. The upside is that, for the first time since my postdoc 9 years ago, I get to do RESEARCH!  I have done a bit of relief teaching and guest lectures at Hogwarts, and so still hanging on to the edge of the sector by a toenail.

Yesterday I found myself fuming in my pyjamas, after reading a press release from the NTEU, which I am still a member of, because I don’t know what union caters for outsourced contractors in the community arts. In a  ridiculous fit of student politics inspired hyperbole, the headline declared “International Students Providing Reverse Foreign Aid To Australia.”  I have horrible visions of the earnest wag who came up with this, noting the ABC Press Release for the Four Corners Special on THE CRISIS of International Students lowering English Standards in Australian Universities.

To be fair, the NTEU must have gotten wind of the appalling A CURRENT AFFAIR style reporting of the actual program – which came from the same school of ABC journalism that produced the Northern Territory Intervention. The Union wrote to its members today, asking for our response to the program, and so this is my reply:

“Thank you so very much for asking for my response to the Four Corners show. I was dismayed yesterday to read the description of the program on the ABC website and also dismayed to read the NTEU press release – which I feel was hastily written and inconsiderate of the deeper issues facing the sector right now. Ross Gittens’ op ed was more nuanced than the NTEU press release, as it mentioned the terrible state of the sector.

I would have preferred that Union responded more intelligently noting the real crisis such as 70% of academic staff on casual or fixed term contracts, the excessive salaries for upper management, and expanded middle management sector of HR departments, communication departments and ‘teaching innovation departments’ covering for a lack of genuine support for students (of all backgrounds).  A beat up ‘crisis’, blaming a ‘flood’ of  international students is a distraction from  these issues that have far more destructive impact on the quality of teaching and research that we are able to do.

Sadly the Four Corners show itself did not fail to live up to the racist dog whistle distraction that I feared that it would consist of. I noted with sadness and dismay as my colleagues of colour felt particularly sickened and upset by the sinister portrayals of international students (cue spooky background music), and the lack of intelligent reporting of and from a range of students and academics. The Four Corners who was more akin to the forms of journalism apparent on  A Current Affair than any serious investigation. SBS have reported on International Students with far more nuance and investigation than the ABC managed.

Speaking personally, I have taught in the higher Ed sector for 15 years (mostly as a sessional), at a range of universities and private providers. And I have taught a lot of international students – with varying English levels – some have almost none, some have almost perfect written English, but speak with a thick accent.  Many students have minor mistakes in grammar and spelling with brilliant and innovative ideas, and some students clearly have obvious language barriers that they struggle with in class. Some international students
never show up and submit random work that appears to come from airtasker.

My point is – that the range of engaged/brilliant/struggling/disengaged among international students is comparable to local students, who also plagiarise, never show up, have barriers with written English or expression. Local students are also exploited, and at one institution, where the ATAR entry level dropped significantly, I noted that students were being enrolled in courses up to four weeks into the start of semester. Many of these students were being shunted from disability support or Jobsearch payments into first year university courses with almost no preparation or support, and effectively getting into debt for courses which they had no hope of passing.

The significant difference between international and local students, is that many international students are also being exploited as workers in the informal economies of hospitality, Uber and Uber Eats. I have heard numerous horror stories of international students working 12 hour shifts on minimum wage, and then desperately trying attend class and complete work. I would appreciate if my Union paid more attention to their situation as exploited workers, than trying to capitalise on an outmoded racist ‘blame the customer’ approach, proferred by the Journalism un the ABC Four Corners report.

If the Union had undertaken a little more investigation, you would be aware of the amount of critical work that academics are undertaking in this area (as well as our exploited, casualised work).  I wish to draw your attention to the article below from four years ago.


I just wish the NTEU had more contact with academics who are thinking critically and actively about our sector as part of our work, and not just in response to our exploitation to a marketised sector. I wish the NTEU had issued a press release today condemning the Four Corners report instead of releasing one yesterday that appeared to support it.
I am so upset and dismayed that I intend to ring my local office and ask for my Membership not to be renewed, because the union seems to be so out of touch, that I don’t believe that you can represent the collective interests of myself or my colleagues or the students with whom we work.”

Am I cynical? yes. I just really wish the NTEU had officials and staff that had worked in the sector they purport to represent. I wish they had officials and staff who had spent 5 years on sessional teaching contracts, and/or published research, and applied for research funding. I wish that some of the brilliant critical exploited scholars that I know were able to attend the Union meetings in the city, or at the pub for casual academics – but the people who can attend such events aren’t usually working on their spare time on research funding, research articles, late night marking or (heaven forbid) family carer duties. And so they cannot describe what it’s actually like to work in this heartbreaking sector.

Blaming the customers is always a sign that someone shouldn’t be teaching. Blaming the brown customers is definitely a sign that someone needs to do some Sociology 101 on Total Social Facts and structural racism. In this nail biting time when our nasty incompetent corrupt federal government has aligned itself politically with neo nazis, and the federal opposition is demonstrating the charisma and policy vision of a mouldy chux wipette, it is especially important that racist dog whistles are not given any space by progressive institutions.

Rant over.


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